The South Asia Channel

The anti-social network: How al-Qaeda survives

Terrorism watchers are engaged in a heated debate about the strength of al-Qaeda, the central leadership of which is believed to be in Pakistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has claimed that al-Qaeda’s "strategic defeat" is within reach, a message that was amplified by prominent analyst Peter Bergen’s proclamation that it is time to declare victory ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Terrorism watchers are engaged in a heated debate about the strength of al-Qaeda, the central leadership of which is believed to be in Pakistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has claimed that al-Qaeda’s "strategic defeat" is within reach, a message that was amplified by prominent analyst Peter Bergen’s proclamation that it is time to declare victory over the group.

Though this debate is unlikely to be resolved soon, it suffers from an under-theorized argument. How resilient is a network like al-Qaeda? How much attrition can it endure? Often, claims related to such questions represent assumptions about al-Qaeda’s resiliency, but lack an overarching framework. A new monograph by one of the U.S. Army’s most innovative thinkers may shed light on this debate. Recently published by the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), Lt. Col. Derek Jones’s Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks is of relevance far beyond the debate about this one organization, albeit an organization that has dominated the past decade of the U.S.’s national-security priorities. Yet it is also an important read for thinkers who desire a more contextualized assessment of al-Qaeda in 2012. (Full disclosure: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross knows Lt. Col. Derek Jones personally, having first become acquainted with him at a Special Operations Command-hosted conference in the fall of 2009.)

Counter-Network Doctrine

Jones, having observed the rise of "counter-network" military theories, analyzes whether these theories correctly understand the nature of the threat posed by twenty-first century violent non-state actors-and whether counter-network operations have been as effective as many theorists believe. (For one review of counter-network theories, see this article by David Tucker.)

Given the advances in communication technology that were well underway before the 9/11 attacks, it is natural that many counter-network theorists have employed models explicitly rooted in the information age. Many theorists thought of al-Qaeda and other contemporary violent non-state actors as social networks much like those observed on the Internet.

Jones rejects the idea that the information age has caused revolutionary changes to clandestine networks. To be sure, they have evolved: al-Qaeda represents the first violent non-state actor capable of posing a truly global challenge at a strategic level to a superpower nation-state. But he points to a phenomenon that captions the way new technologies can fundamentally change groups like al-Qaeda: as networks employ such technologies more frequently, risks grow "due to the increase in electronic and cyber signatures, which puts those types of communications at risk of detection by governments." Instead, al-Qaeda employed traditional tradecraft to avoid detection: recall that the U.S. tracked down Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound by following a courier. This older tradecraft in turn "slows their rate of communication down, thus denying the information-age theorists the monolithic, information-aged, networked enemy that they have portrayed since 9/11."

If information-age theorists aren’t getting it quite right, what kind of network is al-Qaeda? To answer this question, we need to understand the mechanisms by which its own theorists expect to defeat us.

Historically, the overt and visible parts of a guerrilla group are not the most important components. Instead, look to the clandestine underground. It is a well-worn adage that, by slowly eroding the opponent’s will, a guerrilla network "wins by not losing."

Of course, this network doesn’t require mere survival in order to win, but must also maintain the ability to mount attacks. However, as Lukas Milevski notes in a perceptive essay for the Royal United Services Journal, the network need not win outright through battles: battle avoidance can effectively deprive counterinsurgent forces of the control they desire. Hence the truth behind the observation that the United States won all of the battles in Vietnam but lost the war. If a military power cannot use battle to annihilate an adversary, nor push the cost of war beyond what its irregular adversary can afford, it cannot gain strategic control over an important territory or outcome. But to outlast a superior foe, the irregular enemy must first minimize its vulnerabilities to attrition.

Unfortunately for us, al-Qaeda long ago understood how to lessen its organizational signature.                                                                                                 

The Anti-Social Network

Jones argues that al-Qaeda and similar groups are clandestine cellular networks, rather than information-age social networks. They are clandestine in that they are designed to be out of sight; and they are cellular in that they are compartmentalized to minimize damage when enemy neutralizes some portion of the network.

Social networks are open, and expand by multiplying their connections. They use open tools, and have small transaction costs. Occupy Wall Street, for example, used social media extensively to build a network stretching across many cities. While connection is beneficial for an open political movement, it can be fatal to a terrorist group. So a clandestine network functions radically differently from a social network. We use Facebook to make ourselves more connected, but al-Qaeda’s network survives by limiting connections and compartmentalizing information.

Compartmentalization takes two forms. First, at a cell level, a minimum of personal information is known about other cell members. Second, there is strategic compartmentalization between different elements within the organization. Counterinsurgents can capture one person in a cell without destroying the cell itself; and in cases where cell members must interact directly, structural compartmentalization attempts to ensure that the cell cannot be exploited to target other cells or leaders.

The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces doctrine recognizes three components of an insurgency: the auxiliary, the underground, and the guerrillas. The guerrillas are the fighters. The underground is responsible for command and control, logistics, subversion, and intelligence. The auxiliary is "the clandestine support personnel, directed by the underground which provides logistics, operational support, and intelligence collection to both the underground and the guerrillas."

If insurgencies grow to the point that they are "near-peer competitors to the state," they begin to take on characteristics of a conventional force. Secrecy is traded for efficiency, and building networks rather than cells becomes important. But should insurgencies suffer defeat at this stage, their hidden component-the underground-is designed to survive and regenerate the network.

While al-Qaeda aspires to being a near-peer competitor to the nation-state, it has only reached this point in a few theaters where multiple challenges confront the traditional government. In the vast majority of places where the jihadi group has a presence, it operates as a network of compartmentalized cells.

Such networks are largely decentralized at the tactical level, but have more hierarchical control at the strategic level. The core leadership may be an individual, with numerous deputies, or it may be a coordinating committee. But without centralized control, the network cannot effectively develop a strategy for action. The network’s leadership can replace members of the tactical cells easily, but it is harder to replace core members. However, a strong network will ensure redundancy in key areas, so that the group remains viable even if its leaders are captured or killed.

Mistaking Appearances for Reality

Jones writes that counterinsurgents routinely mistake the more overt parts of an insurgency-which can be easily replaced-for the clandestine cells that generate them. But some of the seemingly spontaneously generating cells may say less about the supposedly decentralized nature of a network than it does about the clandestine leadership’s ability to hold itself out of view and recover from seemingly fatal reverses.

The more contact that cells have with counterinsurgents and counterterrorists, the more adept they are at defeating interrogation procedures, protecting their own information, and feeding false information to their enemies. Survival creates a Darwinian cycle in which the core members of an insurgency can adapt, learn, and advance.

If there is one weakness in Jones’s study, it is, as he acknowledges, that it is based largely on Cold War insurgencies and newer insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. From these we can draw inferences about the covert dynamics of al-Qaeda and other Islamist cells outside of war zones-but more study remains to be done.

Overall, though, this is an extremely valuable study. Its most troubling implication is that al-Qaeda may be well positioned to recover from its losses. As Jones argues, the form, function, and logic of this organization are designed to maximize its chances of survival, and thus "the removal of single individuals, regardless of function, is well within the tolerance of this type of organizational structure and thus has little long-term effect." This point is almost certainly overstated as applied to leaders like bin Laden or effective ideologues like Anwar al-Awlaki. Nonetheless, the powerful point remains that the logic of organizations like al-Qaeda is such that their ability to recover from leadership and other losses is maximized.

Is al-Qaeda’s network core still intact? Most specialists would answer yes. If they are right, al-Qaeda may be able to opportunistically re-grow new cells when it is safe, or when public opinion is more favorable.

Most crystal balls are disturbingly cloudy, and only time will tell how well Jones’s study predicts the course that the admittedly weakened core of al-Qaeda will chart. However, Jones offers a persuasive framework for approaching the issue. He thus raises a significant challenge to those arguing that al-Qaeda has been defeated, and offers great insight to others studying twenty-first century violent non-state actors.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America, and the author of eleven books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy. Adam Elkus is a Ph.D. student at American University in the School of International Service and an editor at the Red Team Journal. He is also an Associate at the Small Wars Journal‘s El Centro profile, and blogs at Rethinking Security.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola